APC questions new Pakistan petition to filter the internet
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jul 7 (APC)
A recent petition to the Lahore High Court has sparked concern among internet rights advocates. The petition calls on Pakistani internet service providers to filter the internet in an effort to stamp out online “smut”. APC criticises the proposal as inappropriate in a democratic society which values freedom of expression and the right to information.
This latest petition submitted on 14 June 2011 comes on the heels of an earlier appeal to censor Facebook and other social media sites and illuminates a disturbing trend within Pakistan. Conservative elements of society have increasingly sought to establish tighter controls and filtering of the Pakistani internet.
APC’s member in Pakistan, Bytes for All has expressed concern over the country’s move toward greater online restrictions:
“We denounce the increasing controls by the government over the Internet and larger communication channels in the country. Pakistan is a democracy and the government should refrain from curtailing the Internet. Such controls will put civil liberties — particularly freedom of expression — at high risk. We believe that blocking communication channels is against democratic principles and will further erode the basic freedoms of Pakistani citizens.”
Now of greater concern is that this new petition and the Lahore High Court’s decision issued on May 13th explicitly cite China and Saudi Arabia as models for effective internet governance. What the court’s decision and this new petition fail to mention is the fact that —unlike those two nations which are notorious for restricting political expression— Pakistan has a democratic governance system.
What about rights?
Research conducted by the Citizen Lab’s Open Net Initiative, which documents censorship and surveillance worldwide, shows that Pakistan is quickly joining a number of other nations like China and Iran which rely on extensive filtering mechanisms.
Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, calls the “sudden and dramatic expansion of Internet censorship in Pakistan… deeply concerning. However, there are legal mechanisms that have yet to be exhausted that might be applied to roll back internet censorship, or at least bring greater accountability and transparency to the process.”
Internet policy must not only be based on solid evidence – it must first begin with respect for fundamental human rights. This includes the right to freedom of expression and association, as well as sexual and identity rights. The importance of a rights-based approach to internet policy is outlined in APC’s Internet Rights Charter, and is the basis behind APC’s new campaign, Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights.
Unproven claims about online predators
Unlike the previous call for censorship of social media, which cites issues of blasphemy, this petition makes an appeal to ethical and moral concerns, saying “[i]t is very difficult to contain the rain of smut on the Net and protect children from it.” In particular it warns of the dangers of children being exposed to online predators and makes spurious claims as to the detrimental effects of pornography on Pakistani society.
Research shows that in the vast majority of child abuse cases the perpetrator is known to the victim — either as a relative or close family friend. Instead of relying on solid evidence, the petition falls back on scare tactics, going so far as to claim that the internet is responsible for the perceived –but undocumented— rise in incest within Pakistani society.7 The petition’s own author admits that “there is no data available which can show the gravity of the situation in Pakistan.”
APC is concerned about this ‘ad hoc’ approach to policy making. The findings of the EroTICs project into sexuality online illuminate a deeply complex environment. APC’s women’s rights advocacy co-ordinator, Jac sm Kee emphasises that “The internet affords an important space for all kinds of legitimate sexual expression. It provides access to sexual education and information on sexual and reproductive health; not just to pornography.”
Blanket bans of content are too blunt an instrument for dealing with sexuality online.
No one would dispute the seriousness or importance of the issues raised by this petition. However instituting such extensive censorship regimes as the petitioner calls for opens the door to the restriction of legitimate expression for political reasons rather than a genuine concern for the public good.
Internet intermediaries should not restrict content
The Pakistani petition expects Pakistan’s internet service providers to implement the filtering technology. However governments’ calling on intermediaries to enact censorship policies sets a dangerous precedent.
“Internet service providers are ill-equipped to interpret and implement such policies since they have neither the experience nor the appropriate incentive to be judicious in their filtering,” says APC’s Esterhuysen.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue agrees. His June report explicitly states that “no State should use or force intermediaries to undertake censorship on its behalf” and that “[h]olding intermediaries liable… severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.
Not only are intermediaries in Pakistan strongly incentivised to zealously restrict any content which might be deemed illegal for fear of legal penalty, the lack of transparency in the decision-making process tends to obscure any political motivations for the blocking of content.
Finally, the use of intermediaries in lieu of government regulatory agencies blurs the appropriate avenues for citizens to conduct legal challenges to filtering.